It’s not my forte, this genre. Considering I grew up on a deluge of Hank Williams, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, I struggle to maintain a meaningful relationship with country and folk, aside from a handful of pet artists and the oldies. Farm Aid was helpful, though. I know I should watch that Ken Burns documentary series. What’s actually relevant in modern country or folk, though? I have no clue. I keep coming back to this idea of abandoning genres and I’m starting to realize it’s probably healthy to disconnect when you’re one of these types of obsessives who want to look for a reason to love everything. There’s too much out there, plain and simple. I’m sure I’ll get back to ya some day, country music.
First I’ll mention The Wilcoes, despite the fact that they pulled an epic snub on Wisconsin this year. As you perhaps know by now, I’m a words guy, and it continues to give me a lot of hope that Jeff Tweedy, a white dude in his 50s, can still write lyrics that make sense in modern society and don’t make me cringe. On top of that, Wilco remains musically unpredictable. After Star Wars and Schmilco, which could almost function as two halves of a double album, Tweedy & co. have wiped the slate clean with Ode To Joy, a title that’s not completely ironic, but as you also may have noticed by now, very little that Wilco creates is altogether irony-free. My favorite song on Schmilco was “Common Sense”, a quietly noisy acoustic-driven thing that seems now like it was the jumping-off point for this entire new album. There are no rockers on Ode To Joy, yet are there any ballads? I guess “Love Is Everywhere (Beware)”, the dadrockiest track, but thematically the most crucial song on the album. Ode To Joy isn’t super obscure nor inaccessible; it’s lovely throughout, as long as you’re not craving catchy melodies and optimism, and also unnerving in a delightful sorta way. Probably the closest to jazz that Wilco has ever come, which isn’t saying much, but I could see “Quiet Amplifier” going places. It’s their most Loose Furry album yet, quizzical, endearingly unsettling, not instantly memorable, but give it enough time and it may astound you. This one’s not for the fans, as always.
Next, Sturgill Simpson, whose stylistic shift from country to countryish rock, embellished with anime no less, became a sort of hipster litmus for the year. The poor bastard; he would’ve ridden an earnest wave of adulation prior to social media, but nowadays we can’t admit to being surprised or impressed by anything. I digested all the hot takes with one grain of salt per, then eventually dove into Sound & Fury with as open a mind as possible, and really really liked it. My fears that it would sound just like The Black Keys were quickly allayed. It also clarified for me what keeps me from getting into that band: I really don’t like Dan Auerbach’s singing. Simpson is an incredible singer; he sounds the way I imagine Auerbach would like to sound. I’d completely forgotten that I actually did listen to his last album. It was a little too much for me at the time, but I’ll definitely be revisiting it. Sound & Fury, though, I get a charge out of right now. One of the more interesting BIG STYLISTIC PIVOTS of 2019.
I initially filed this piece under “Americana” but where else could I put Flook? (Plus the term “Americana”, gag me with a spoon.) The Irish trad virtuosos were either on hiatus or broken up, and now they’re back, and you know they deserve to be written about because of how dumb I sound writing about them. I can say that the four members are all about as good as a person can be at playing their instruments, but that doesn’t tell you much, does it? So while I wait for someone to point me in the direction of other artists making better music in this style, I’ll stick with Flook being the best at it. Ancora does not sound like all the other Irish folk bands I’ve heard, it does not sound like a relic, it doesn’t require words. Flook has been my gold standard for as long as I’ve known of them, and this is not better than any of their previous records; it’s just nice to have some new tunes.
It feels weird putting Chelsea Wolfe in this category, even though the first thing I heard of hers was Ἀποκάλυψις, another mostly-acoustic affair. It’s hard for me to avoid thinking of Birth Of Violence as a retreat of some kind, given her intense evolution in songwriting and performing over the course of the decade. This strikes me as a deliberate distancing or detachment, and that comes through in her singing; feel free to write that off as my presumptions coloring my interpretation of the music if you like. I still really like the album, and admittedly songs like “American Darkness” and “Deranged For Rock & Roll” would not have nearly the same impact if she was crushing an electric guitar. I feel taunted by the album and excited for the next one.
Leading the pack on a similar tip, Marissa Nadler’s collaborative album with Stephen Brodsky, Droneflower. Confession: I’ve listened to their cover of GN’R’s “Estranged” way more than anything else on the album. It’s fucking sublime. And I’ll obviously stump for the Morphine cover, “In Spite Of Me”, as well. That said, the ethereal four-song suite that opens the album, bookended by “Space Ghost I” and “II”, is enough to send you onto a higher mental plane; rarely has Nadler’s voice been so atmospheric as opposed to a conveyance of words. Then the trio of originals that follow “Estranged” work to further disembody you. The album’s production gives an explicitly rough-take, un-fussed-over feeling; you’re not in their living room, but you’re the only person in this club not onstage, and how are two people singing and playing so many parts simultaneously? You get to the end of the record feeling like either they were ghosts who just vanished into the inner groove, or you are.
I fully planned to do a whole piece on the really old folks who put out albums this year, only I discovered that I could only find one worth writing about, and that was Uncle Neil. Neil Young put out his best album in a long time, that’s my version of the narrative. When I listen to Colorado I get the sense that it is the long-awaited true follow-up to Sleeps With Angels, not in terms of lyrical themes but in tone and feel and composition, and without the blatant self-recycling that’s been apparent on many of his recent works. “She Showed Me Love” is the most oscillation we’ve heard in an extended Crazy Horse jam (on record, anyway) in quite some time. “Help Me Lose My Mind” I like to think of as a natural freak’s analogue to the mawkish self-help drivel dreamed up by certain other favorite musicians of mine. “Shut It Down” and “Rainbow Of Colors”, I am with you sir, we want the same things and I would gladly grant you U.S. citizenship to make myself feel more patriotic. There’s a caveat here: As I’ve mentioned, I saw Neil twice this year, about as dissimilar as two Neil shows could be, both of them like an electric current into my soul. “Green Is Blue” debuted in Milwaukee in January and I have to admit it hit me hard then and now. Neil has always traded in simplicity; I feel that it’s been rare lately that he evokes such complex emotions this economically and poignantly. This is the defining characteristic of his best songs and there are at least a few on Colorado that approach such magic. Only yes, he’s been in my awareness in a major way; whether this amounts to having underrated his last, oh, ten or so albums, or that Colorado is actually that much better, who could say? We must let the narrative take its course, people.